When you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, subtlety, range and nuance are not the first things that come to mind, and with good reason. He’s built his film career on playing preposterously muscled one-man-armies who can happily kill hundreds of baddies with no effort, remorse or regret, dispensing an endless supply of catchphrases while doing so. There’s a reason that the Terminator is his defining role: because not only are his limitations as an actor not a problem, they actually benefit the emotionless nature of the character.
Lately, though, he seems to be undergoing a career reinvention. Between this year’s Terminator Genisys and Maggie, could we be seeing the beginnings of Arnold Schwarzenegger: Actor? He’s by far the best thing in Genisys, and while that could be taken as the dictionary definition of damning with faint praise, he gives a genuinely good performance in it.
If Arnold’s career trajectory has taught us nothing else, it’s that we shouldn’t bet against him.
Arnie has always been underrated as a comedian, largely because most of the comedies he made weren’t very good, but he’s had a real gift for comic timing at least as far back as Commando, which is probably the funniest film he ever made. (And yes, it is funny on purpose.) Genisys brings his humour to the forefront, with the newest incarnation of the Terminator providing practically every laugh in the film. It’s a little odd that the unstoppable killing machine of old should be as harmless and light-hearted as it is here, but Arnold provides a core of warmth and – dare we say it? – heart, that is the only thing keeping Genisys from being yet another utterly disposable franchise reboot.
But it’s in Maggie that he’s truly a revelation. Unlike Genisys, Maggie actually is a very good film, a downbeat, sombre drama completely unlike anything else Arnold has ever made. Playing an ordinary person is quite a risk for him, since every other character he’s played has been basically himself. The general, and accurate, view is that Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t play characters; his characters become Arnold Schwarzenegger. But in Maggie, despite his Austrian accent being even more incongruous than usual in a film where he’s playing a farmer in the American midwest, he actually succeeds in burying his usual persona and – whisper it – playing someone else.
He’s quiet. The only people he kills are zombies, and he has a moral crisis afterwards. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who massacred presumably hundreds of people at the end of Commando, expresses guilt for killing people who were already technically dead. He spends the entire film agonising about whether or not he can kill his infected daughter, who is gradually and painfully becoming a zombie herself. This isn’t a Terminator who needs to be ordered not to kill anyone; this is an ordinary man who loves his daughter and truly doesn’t want to kill anyone. And like with the Terminator, his somewhat limited range actually helps: his daughter is slowly dying, he can’t help her, and he’s understandably struggling to deal with the emotions he’s experiencing as a result.
Based on this, the future is bright for the Austrian Oak, and he should be looking forward, not back.
It’s true that Maggie probably wouldn’t have the impact it does if it starred someone other than Arnold, and he wouldn’t be as affecting in it as he is without his history of playing murderous muscleheads. It’s this playing against the audience’s expectations for a Schwarzenegger film that makes it work so well, and Arnie would definitely be better off making more films like this than trying to relive past glories with Genisys, Legend of Conan and the long-gestating Twins sequel. Based on this, the future is bright for the Austrian Oak, and he should be looking forward, not back.
If Arnold’s career trajectory has taught us nothing else, it’s that we shouldn’t bet against him, and that once he sets his mind to something, he achieves it more often than not. He wanted to be a bodybuilder; he became Mr. Olympia seven times. He wanted to be a movie star; he was in Terminator 2, the highest-grossing film of 1991 and the third highest-grossing ever at the time. He wanted to go into politics; he became the Governor of California. If he’s decided that he wants to be an actual actor now, who’s going to be the one to tell him no?
By Emlyn Roberts Harry